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The most fun for me, besides those fresh tomato sandwiches, are the surprise, bonus plants that pop up.

Companion planting 

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It's just so easy to put off cleaning out the chicken coop. It's an annual task at our house for which no one else raises their hand.

The best time of the year to do it is when the garden wakes me up, gets me out of bed on a cool Saturday morning and says, "Get me that compost!" It's true, the floor of our backyard chicken coop is so full of nutrients that once I do start shoveling it out I just keep digging until I hit clay again.

For a year, we're been tossing in kitchen leftovers, grass clippings, leaf bags, leftover Halloween pumpkins, coffee grinds, bales of straw. Every day, the neighbor's 2-year-old visits and tosses in his contribution of fresh-picked clover. The chickens just churn it up. Once a year, it's out with the old, in with the new, wheelbarrows of loamy gray goodness.

I tried something new this spring with the coop's manure mix. Rather than till it into the garden, I expanded a few blueberry beds and added the chickens' mixture in broad furrows around the dormant plants. The bushes sent out runners, expanding into the open space.

After the last frost, gardening magic started happening. The most fun for me, besides those fresh tomato sandwiches, are the surprise, bonus plants that pop up. Right now, the blueberry patch is ringed with floppy-petaled volunteer squash and gourd vines, growing out of that potent coop compost. I'm sure the deer enjoy the no-charge ground cover, too.

In the vegetable garden, my wife is the designated thinner. This year I tilled and planted in abundance; it's up to her to make the rows of cilantro and parsley more orderly. I like half a dozen zucchini vines vigorously twisting over hill and dale; she favors survival of the fittest. Give me cascading bushes of basil any day; she calmly claims two's plenty. We agree that you just can't have too many tomatoes. However, I could do without cherry tomatoes on every corner.

New this year to the garden terrain are those versatile giant croquet wickets, formally campaign yard sign holders. After the primaries, they were askew at every traffic intersection, wire skeletons with tattered cardboard posters. They make great garden hose guides, or climbing trellises for beans or cucumbers. Our lazy cats seem to like leaning and rubbing against them.

It's been a lucky May, with the regular doses of rain we've received—at least one downpour a week in Orange County since the end of April. Fourteen shades of green surround us, from the pale, translucent tones of the thin, early lettuce shoots to the dark, deep, holly tree leaves. All around the light, new growth contrasts with the established background. Cue the reds, blues and oranges!

On a dewy dawn morning walk to get the paper, the dogs and I take a detour to check out the garden. They deliberately sniff every fence post, gate opening and path marker. I share their curiosity. The Corn Planting Moon is just setting over the pine trees in the west. Me, I'm checking out the eager sunflowers on the north side, the slow-and-steady green and red peppers, and the excited tomatoes, now rising an inch a day.

  • The most fun for me, besides those fresh tomato sandwiches, are the surprise, bonus plants that pop up.

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